Paul Ryan on Europe

Compared to Ryan's budgets, Cameron's coalition looks positively profligate.

As a congressman, Paul Ryan hasn't turned his gaze overseas all that often. He is far too busy focusing on important domestic issues like changing the taxation on arrow shafts from a 12.5 per cent of sales to a 39¢ flat tax to spend time worrying about the Old World.

But he has made two notable, on-the-record, contributions to debates happening on this side of the pond.

The first was in 2009, when he co-authored a Wall Street Journal article about the perils of socialised medicine.

The piece, titled Beware of the Big-Government Tipping Point, was published in January 2009, the day before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, and is a strongly worded attack on the then-nascent idea of Obamacare.

In the piece, Ryan touches on the NHS, arguing that:

We need only look to Great Britain and elsewhere to see the effects of socialized health care on the broader economy. Once a large number of citizens get their health care from the state, it dramatically alters their attachment to government.

This line has been ramped up in the re-reporting of it, becoming a "savaging" in the Times, where Sam Coates suggested that Ryan had claimed "that free healthcare distorts the democratic process". The truth is that the pieces more mild, more wonkish, and even partially correct – although deeply cynical.

He is right,because it is obvious to anyone that the American attitude to government is clearly different to the British one. For all that some on the right of the Conservative party love to repeat Ronald Reagan's famous quote about Government being the problem, that view is only really held by the fringes of European society - as opposed to the US, where it is the mainstream opinion.

It's only partly right, though, because he's clearly overstating the effect healthcare has. Attachment to the state comes from more than just getting your medicine from The Man. It is experiencing a caring state full stop which changes how a nation sees the role of government.

And it's deeply cynical because he seems to be arguing that a government should stay deliberately bad – should stop doing good things, and only do things which will anger its citizens – because otherwise people will realise that big government isn't such a bad thing.

It's putting the cart before the horse. If Ryan thinks universal healthcare is bad, he should have the courage to let the voters decide whether they agree with him – not prevent them from getting healthcare because they might realise he's wrong.

Ryan's other moment touching on British issues came in 2011. He was given the opportunity to make the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union address (roughly analogous to the Queen's speech, in that it lays out the legislative agenda for the year ahead). He argued:

If we continue down our current path, we know what our future will be. Just take a look at what’s happening to Greece, Ireland, the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe. They didn’t act soon enough; and now their governments have been forced to impose painful austerity measures: large benefit cuts to seniors and huge tax increases on everybody.

Lumping together "Greece, Ireland and the United Kingdom" betrays a basic lack of comprehension of the extreme differences between the crises in those three countries.

For one thing, there is no way that America could ever (in the foreseeable future) face crises similar to those of Ireland and Greece. Simplifying matters enormously, Greece's problems were borne from corrupt governments systematically lying on national accounts to enter the Euro, running spiralling deficits once the cheap credit became available, and having no recourse to the currency markets when the truth came out.

Ireland, meanwhile, suffered a hangover from a privately financed housing boom which turned into a privately financed housing bust, a banking crisis which required a government bailout, and, again, the straightjacket imposed by the Euro combined with German intransigence aggravating the whole matter.

And if Ryan was seriously suggesting that following Obama's vision for America could take the country in the direction of the UK, he needed to take a look in a mirror.

Even in 2011, it was clear that the UK did not have any particular debt crisis, and that overzealous attempts to deal with the deficit were harming demand and compounding the error. Construction spending had fallen, confidence had been slammed and the VAT rise had just been introduced.

Of course, for all that Ryan looked economically illiterate comparing the three at the time –and he did – in hindsight, he looks even worse. The Conservatives, we now know, inherited recovery and turned it into recession, and they did that through targeted application of austerity. But compared to Paul Ryan's budgets, the Coalition looks positively profligate.

The VP pick has not got a perfect track record talking about things outside his expertise, then. I'd suggest he stick to areas he knows about, but it's becoming rapidly questionable whether there actually are any. Maybe he should just keep quiet and be a pretty face on the campaign trail.

 

Paul Ryan. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.